Music and Opera

Our curation of music and opera reviews

An awesome spectacle: The Mongol Khan, at the London Coliseum, reviewed

When the Ballets Russes first presented Fokine’s Polovtsian Dances at Covent Garden in 1911, such was its orgiastic savagery that ladies in the audience were said to be genuinely terrified that its grease-painted warriors were about to leap off the stage and ravish them. The Mongol Khan, a great hit imported from Ulan Bator, may not induce genteel screaming, but it has some awe-inspiring moments and belongs in the same ersatz orientalist tradition as Fokine’s ballet – primitive Asiatic culture made colourfully palatable to western tastes. I’m curious to know who put the money up for a production that must be costing millions It is based on a 1998 play

Melodic elegance and literate sass: Ben Folds, at Usher Hall, reviewed

Choose your weapon. Artists are closely defined in the public imagination by their instrument of choice. Though the most untamed and transgressive progenitors of rock’n’roll – Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard – were piano pounders, and despite the later efforts of Elton John, over time the instrument has come to be associated with restraint and politesse; the straight second cousin to rock’s clichéd wild child, the electric guitar. He strolled on stage like a stranger and left 100 minutes later as an old friend I hadn’t realised I’d missed American singer-songwriter Ben Folds has been playing with these expectations for the best part of 30 years, first in Ben

A farrago of Blakean mysticism and steampunk twaddle: BalletBoyz’s England on Fire, at Sadler’s Wells, reviewed

It’s nearly a quarter of a century since Michael Nunn and William Trevitt bravely left their safe haven at the Royal Ballet to set up BalletBoyz, a company aimed at developing the underused potential of male dancers and exploiting Nunn and Trevitt’s passion for film technology. At the time this seemed like a useful mission – stereotypes and prejudices lingered around men in tights, and the formats for smaller dance companies needed loosening up. It lasts a moderate 70 minutes and, in its nutty way, it’s quite enjoyable One measure of BalletBoyz’s subsequent success is that so many of their experiments have been incorporated into the mainstream, and the enterprise

Gig of the year: Ezra Collective, at the Royal Albert Hall, reviewed

The American music website Pitchfork is the journal of record for alternative America. It has became this generation’s Rolling Stone, for both good and ill. Long before it was bought by Condé Nast, however, it was famous for a disastrous jazz review in which the site’s founder chose to employ what he appeared to believe was the vernacular of a jazz ‘cat’ of the early 1960s. All is forgiven, though. Here was the London outpost of the Pitchfork Festival, opening with jazz stars Ezra Collective, the quintet who earlier this autumn won the Mercury Prize for their second album, Where I’m Meant To Be. Ezra Collective are very easy to

Cliché, cynicism and a car-crash finale: Royal Opera’s Jephtha reviewed

London’s two opera houses have been busy staging non-operas. Handel’s English oratorio, Jephtha, is his final exercise in a form that only existed because it was, explicitly, not opera (Georgian theatres needed something to play during Lent). We know better today, and dramatised reboots of Handel oratorios are proliferating, possibly because – unlike his actual operas – they give the chorus something to do. Katie Mitchell directed Theodora at Covent Garden last year. Now Oliver Mears has had a bash at Jephtha and has encountered the same basic problem. Operas seduce; oratorios preach. These are explicitly Christian, implicitly patriotic works, and what self-respecting contemporary director could allow that? It was

Rod Liddle

A rather beautiful farewell to rock’n’roll: The Beatles’ ‘Now and Then’ reviewed

Grade: A The last song the Beatles ever recorded was called, appropriately enough, ‘The End’, on the Abbey Road album. As a consequence of digital sorcery, however, ‘Now and Then’ is the last song we will ever hear from them – a demo passed from John to Paul, dubbed over in the early 1990s by the (then) three surviving members and, more recently, unearthed and remastered. It does not sound very much like the Beatles; it is more akin to a mid-1970s John Lennon solo album song (think ‘#9 Dream’) but overseen by Paul McCartney – which in effect is kind of what it is. It’s a fine, lachrymose ballad

Subtle, intriguing and inventive: Rambert’s Death Trap reviewed

Ben Duke belongs to a class of younger choreographers who have decided to flout the convention that dancers should remain silent on stage. Liberating their voices is by no means a new phenomenon (in 1961 Frederick Ashton had Svetlana Beriosova speak verse by Gide in his sadly forgotten Persephone), but it’s one that particularly suits our culture’s dislike of rigid genres, and Duke makes playful use of it in the double bill entitled Death Trap that makes up Rambert’s current tour, which lands at Sadler’s Wells on 22 November. Rambert’s superb troupe of dancers let rip in bursts of gloriously exuberant jiving Goat is the less successful of his two

Funny, faithful and inventive: Scottish Opera’s Barber of Seville reviewed

A violinist friend in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra used to talk about an orchestra’s ‘muscle memory’; a collective instinct that transmits itself, unspoken and unconscious, among the members of the ensemble. The occasion was a return visit from Sir Simon Rattle, a good decade and a half after he’d left Birmingham. At that point, perhaps only one third of the musicians had been present when Rattle last conducted this particular work. No matter. ‘You know how we play this,’ said Rattle, and sure enough they did, slipping as one into the exact articulation and dynamics that Rattle had instilled all those years ago. As with the human body,

This recreation of Dylan’s Free Trade Hall concert is supremely good

In May 1966, Bob Dylan toured the UK with The Band, minus drummer Levon Helm, and abrasively pulled the plug on any lingering notions of his being a mere folk singer. Playing two sets every night – the first acoustic, the second electric – even the solo numbers were wild, lysergic, unravelled. The electric ones whipped through the tweed and tradition like the howl of a strange new language. The crowds booed and one chap famously cried ‘Judas!’ (though presumably many of those present also enjoyed it). Dylan muttered and swore and was unbowed. The fast-moving currents of pop culture changed course almost perceptibly.  Give Power the right lines and

Spellbinding performance of a career-defining record: Corinne Rae Bailey, at Ladbroke Hall, reviewed

You won’t see two more contrasting shows this year than Corinne Bailey Rae performing her album Black Rainbows and Brian Eno presenting work with a symphony orchestra. One had music that did everything; one had music that did very little. But both were overwhelming and filled with joy of rather different kinds. When Bailey Rae last made an album, in 2016, it was gentle, tasteful, soulful R&B, the kind the young professional couple in a prestige Netflix drama listen to before their lives are overturned by a vengeful nanny. Black Rainbows,by contrast, from earlier this year, was an abrupt embrace of everything: from scuzzy garage punk to psychedelic soul to

Modest means, but striking results: Opera North’s La rondine reviewed

Opera North is ending its autumn season with a big-hearted production of a lopsided opera. There’s much to love about Puccini’s La rondine, and much to drive you up the wall. This bittersweet love story about an older woman and a younger man, set in Paris and Nice and channelling the operetta sweetness and sparkle of Puccini’s great friend Lehar, ought to sweep you off your feet. Instead, it tempts critics into that most shameless form of condescension, the armchair rewrite. Giacomo, old chap, isn’t five minutes into Act One a bit soon to be introducing your big hit aria? We’re halfway through Act Two: shouldn’t the lovers be together

The miracle of watching a great string quartet perform

Joseph Haydn, it’s generally agreed, invented the string quartet. And having done so, he re-invented it: again and again. Take his quartet Op. 20, No. 2, of 1772 – the first item in the Takacs Quartet’s recital last week at the Wigmore Hall. The cello propels itself forward and upward, then starts to warble like a bird on the wing. The viola sketches in a rudimentary bass line; the second violin – higher than the cello on paper, but actually playing at a lower pitch – shadows the melody in its flight. The first violin? Nothing: the leader (or so you might imagine) of the group is entirely silent until

The case against re-recording albums 

In 2012, Jeff Lynne released Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra. Except it wasn’t. It was 11 new re-recordings of classic ELO songs – which isn’t the same thing at all. Lynne, bless him, believed that having gained more experience as a producer, he could now improve the songs that made him famous. ‘You know how to make it sound better than it did before,’ he said, ‘Because I have more knowledge… and technology.’ Sheesh. How wrong can one man be? Pop music is all about the definitivearticle. Not only the bold prefix attached to its greatest practitioners – Beatles, Byrds, Wailers, Temptations, Fall, et al

A Radio 3 doc that contains some of the best insults I’ve ever heard

A recent Sunday Feature on Radio 3 contained some of the best insults I have ever heard. Contributors to the programme on the early music revolution were discussing the backlash they experienced in the 1970s while reviving period-style instruments and techniques. Soprano Dame Emma Kirkby remembered one critic complaining that listening to her performance was ‘as about as interesting as eating an entire meal of plain yoghurt’. Another critic, writing in Gramophone, pronounced the strings of the new ensembles ‘as beautiful as period dentistry’. Those strings were mostly made of animal guts. There was, as one of the musicians interviewed recalled, ‘a DIY atmosphere’ to the movement, which developed alongside

Uninventive and far too polite: BRB’s Black Sabbath – The Ballet reviewed

Not being an aficionado of the heavy-metal genre, I snootily suspected that I would rather be standing in the rain flogging the Big Issue than suffer the racket that goes by the name of Black Sabbath. The noise, my dear, and the people! How could they? So I approached Birmingham Royal Ballet’s attempt to dance to its shenanigans armed with earplugs and gritted teeth. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected: in fact, it erred towards the polite and tasteful, and I wondered if a crowd largely consisting of hairy and leathery old rockers – some of them possibly anticipating satanic rituals or heads being bitten off chickens –

Virgin on the astonishing: Madonna, at The O2, reviewed

When I was a kid listening obsessively to AC/DC and Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, I despaired of music writers. How come none of them – except the staff of Kerrang! magazine and a couple of writers on Sounds – could see the majesty and splendour of this music? Why were they always banging on about flipping Echo and the Bunnymen and Joy Division, or harking back to old man Dylan? These days, all three of those bands are to some degree or another as revered. Not everyone loves them, but you won’t find many serious critics – even those who don’t personally care for ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’, ‘The Number

Juicy solution to the Purcell problem: Opera North’s Masque of Might reviewed

Another week, another attempt to solve the Purcell problem. There’s a problem? Well, yes, if you consider that a composer universally agreed (on the strength of Dido and Aeneas) to be a great musical dramatist left only one stageable opera (that’d be Dido and Aeneas), but hour upon hour of theatre music that’s effectively unperformable in anything like its original context: i.e., yoked to text-heavy Restoration dramas. How to get this stuff back on stage?  The story is rudimentary – just enough to support song, dance and a thumping great moral Masque of Might, David Pountney’s new extravaganza for Opera North, is one solution, and it’s rather a fun one.

Jenny McCartney

What happened to the supermodels of the 1990s?

‘What advice would you give to your younger self?’ has become a popular question in interviews in recent years. It’s meant to generate something profound but, musing privately, I always find it a puzzler. Sometimes I think that maybe I shouldn’t have wasted so much of my twenties talking nonsense in pubs, but on the other hand I really enjoyed it. So I usually settle on: ‘Don’t buy a sofa bed, especially not the kind with a concealed metal frame that you pull out.’ Unbelievably, I’ve done this twice. These vast, unwieldy contraptions cost a bomb, weigh a ton, make a terrible sofa and an uncomfortable bed. If you’re 16

Damian Thompson

The Goldberg crown has settled on a new head: Vikingur Olafsson’s Golberg Variations reviewed

Grade: A+ In 2018, the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson released a solo Bach album. It bounced along unforgettably. Olafsson’s subsequent albums for Deutsche Grammophon were all lovely, but like many ‘intellectual’ pianists blessed with a pearly touch he could sound a bit precious. I missed the playfulness of his Bach, and so when he announced he was recording the Goldberg Variations I was excited. Could he sprinkle the magic of his original album over this famous Aria and its 30 tightly argued variations, at a time when there are more than 200 rival recordings on piano floating around – and roughly the same number on harpsichord? (When Glenn Gould cut

New Order’s oldies still sound like the future

The intimate acoustic show can denote many things for an established artist. One is that, in the infamous euphemism coined by Spinal Tap, their audience has become more ‘selective’. Attempting to make the best of a bad job, the artist shifts down a gear while aiming upmarket, much in the manner of a balding man cultivating a fancy moustache. The cosy concert is also favoured by pop stars craving some old fashioned string-and-wire authenticity. Occasionally, the urge is a creative one, propelled by the sense that the material being promoted lends itself to a less triumphalist approach. ‘My Love Mine All Mine’ is, thanks to the ludic powers of TikTok,